Mass media, or public media?

The way communication is organised is developing as public societies encourage deliberations between equals.

‘Social network sites have made citizens audible and visible to one another,’ Hind writes  [GALLO/GETTY]

In his 1956 book The Power Elite the American sociologist C. Wright Mills sketched the difference between a ‘public society’ and a ‘mass society’. He thought this difference could best be understood in terms of the characteristic forms of communication found in each.

In a public society the archetype of communication is a conversation between equals where ‘virtually as many people express opinions as receive them’ and ‘communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer any opinion expressed in public’. A public, as opposed to a mass, can translate its opinions into effective action. It can change policy as its opinions change. In a mass society, on the other hand, the most characteristic form of communication is a broadcast that delivers one unanswerable voice to millions of quiet and attentive listeners. There is little or no scope for individuals to answer back to the messages they receive. There is certainly no way that the inhabitants of a mass society can translate their opinions into politically effective action.

For much of the time after Mills wrote The Power Elite the trend in the West was towards greater massification. In America, the formal and informal publics that convened to discuss matters of shared concern were, to some extent, supplanted by televised and heavily stage-managed events – the studio audience replaced the town hall meeting. In Britain, political parties, which once provided at least some scope for public discussion in Mills’ sense, became increasingly centralised. Party conferences ceased to be venues for debates about policy and active membership dwindled.

More generally, politicians in both country adopted techniques and personnel from the entertainment and public relations industry and aspired to create the illusion of public engagement while suppressing its potential to disrupt elite decision-making. For a while it seemed that new technologies would only provide them with new resources for manipulation and surveillance.

But there are now encouraging signs that a public society is reviving. In part this is because modern communications technology has made it possible for at least some groups to communicate without relying on broadcast and print media. Social network sites have made citizens audible and visible to one another. In the run up to the occupation of the City of London, for example, thousands of people used a Facebook page to express their intention to show up. Occupations in hundreds of other cities have taken advantage of social media in similar ways. 

To a much greater extent, though, something like a public society is emerging because the major media no longer seem able to describe the world accurately. The ongoing financial crisis in particular has done huge damage to the prestige of the major news operations. They didn’t see it coming. They misunderstood it when it happened. And they still struggle to state the blindingly obvious, that the private credit system has failed, and that banking must now come under effective democratic control.

As a result of these shortcomings in the media, politically motivated publics are starting to assemble online and in the real world. And this, I think, is what is driving the occupations movement – the recognition that the descriptions on offer in the mainstream media don’t make sense, that the machinery of representative politics is broken, and that these are two aspects of the same problem.

When people meet at the occupations they adopt techniques for discussion and deliberation that aspire to what C. Wright Mills would have called public communication. The assemblies that have sprung up are explicitly intended to ensure that ‘ virtually as many people express opinions as receive them’. The occupiers are seeking to create a shared understanding that in turn informs a political programme, that is, to communicate in publicly effectual ways.

So far these innovations and the conversations between equals they make possible have barely featured in the world of broadcast publicity, the information system that most people rely on most of the time. Television likes to draw on a stable spectrum of supposedly legitimate opinion to frame debates about public policy. It has, for the most part, never occurred to them that they might better spend their time facilitating discussion between citizens. Consider this – when did you last see two ‘ordinary people’ discuss any matter of public interest at length on television?

A deliberating public

Any process of free deliberation can easily be misrepresented and many in the conventional media are busy doing so. This is hardly surprising. The occupations have declared the spectrum of opinion visible in the broadcast media inadequate and indeed unreal. They are discussing first principles on the basis of equality and mutual recognition. It will take time for some journalists to recognise that their current working assumptions and practises are part of the problem the assemblies are seeking to remedy.

A deliberating public is not an organised and disciplined group, which can be expected to remain unswervingly on message. So it is a simple matter to find cranks and to declare that they somehow embody the meaning of an occupation. When they aren’t accusing them of deranged extremism, broadcasters and others sometimes decide that the occupiers are incoherent and confused, which is another way of criticising a participatory model for not adopting the message control preferred by modern political parties and corporate public relations departments. 

Indeed, for the most part, the major media cannot bring itself to notice the political intent of occupation-and-assembly, to register that what is being tried is another kind of politics, which entails a different model of communication. Yet this is a movement with a long history. Though significant numbers of people in Britain and the United States are only beginning to master the language of assemblies and working groups, citizens in Latin America have been building participatory forms for decades.

Journalists are not stupid. They must know that their audiences will not be satisfied for much longer with coverage that defers to a ridiculous political and economic establishment while mocking or misrepresenting serious and well-intentioned citizens. It is past time that journalists found ways of reporting that support public participation. They have been trained to convey the views of the decision-makers inside to the masses outside. But rather than watch a simulacrum of public life, more and more people are looking to achieve public status for themselves. They are looking for media that acknowledges this and helps the citizen body to form itself, to clarify its opinions, and act as it thinks best.

The challenge for many journalists, in other words, is to describe what is happening in front of their eyes. If they choose to remain committed to their understanding of how communications should be organised, if they remain wedded to their privileges as operatives in the mass media, they risk irrelevance. For the occupations are not demonstrations or mobs. They are an attempt to create a public society.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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